Singer-songwriter Indigo Sparke is from Sydney, Australia, but she currently calls the United States her home. As she explains, America had always resonated with her during the times when she traveled back and forth between Bali, Los Angeles and Sydney. Then finally, her visa went through at the height of the pandemic, oddly enough.
“I had always wanted to move over,” the indie folk musician says. “I had spent time living in Topanga in Los Angeles and Taos, New Mexico, and a bunch of different places. Just driving across the country would light up my soul in a different kind of way. [After the visa came through], I thought, ‘Now? I’m gonna move now in the middle of a pandemic?’ This timing couldn’t be more bizarre. For the first time, I’m not in a relationship. I had been in a few consecutive relationships with people who lived in America. it was kind of my reason for going all the time. And I just came.”
In addition to her residency in the States, which is now approaching two years, Sparke is at a good place in her life now. But that wasn’t the case about two years ago when she experienced a romantic breakup while coping with the pandemic and other chaos in the world. Those feelings of grief, anger and uncertainty informed the themes of her excellent second full-length album Hysteria, which came out in October on the Sacred Bones label. On December 1, Sparke will be playing a show in New York City in support of the new album, which was produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner; early next year, she will open for Neko Case on some dates.
Sparke started working on the material for Hysteria during COVID’s peak while she was quarantined in Australia; at the time, her 2021 debut full-length record Echo was about to be released. “I don’t think I had a choice,” Sparke explains about how that difficult time in her life influenced the record. “I think it was my survival and coping mechanism that was the only thing that I can turn that was going to help me through the period I was in. I was feeling such immense grief and confusion being in this state of unknown with the relationship and the state of the world was so terrifying. There were no answers to anything.
“I think that’s the place where I started writing from: face the fear, face the unknown, and face the feeling of hysteria inside of myself and be like, ‘Okay, how do I be in this place with a sense of acceptance and grace, and do the things that I know that will make me feel good?’ Mostly I realized the things that were the most healing and stabilizing were the really simple little rituals like making a cup of tea every morning. And when things felt too overwhelming, [it was] picking up the guitar and trying, even if it didn’t turn out in the way that I thought it should. That was kind of my process at that point.”
In contrast to the somewhat minimalist-sounding Echo, Hysteria sounds expansive and cinematic. Sparke knew from the beginning that she wanted her new album to be a departure from its predecessor. “I felt that the quality of the songs was already different. It had so much more of an edge in it: an edge of grief, hysteria, rage. These feelings had come to full existence in my body and I was like, ‘I can’t ignore these anymore.’ I knew that the sound needed to be bigger and I wanted to try something different.”
Sparke then sought Dessner, whom she first met briefly at a music festival in Wisconsin years ago. She was impressed by his previous production credits that included Sharon Van Etten and Taylor Swift. “I remember feeling the rawness and grit of the expression and what they had captured,” she says of Dessner’s works. “It was resonating with me so much in what I had written. I feel a familiar thread there.”
With Sparke’s graceful singing and beguiling melodies along with the shimmering production and musicianship, the singer’s lyrics on Hysteria convey the turbulence she felt—such as on the eloquent “Pressure in My Chest,” which was inspired by the time she stayed at a huge house in Taos during the winter. “That song came from that place of being in this space really alone and stripped of any sense of safety,” she recalls, “carrying my history with me and feeling this sense of extreme liberation being in these huge desert landscapes with open skies—but then also feeling this gripping tension of grief and history in my chest: ‘How do I move through the world, how do I learn to hold both of those things inside of myself?’”
The acoustic-laden folk sound of “Blue” evokes a dark melancholy—it was the first song Sparke wrote that indicated to her she had a new album on the way. “It was one song that I remember being like really broken, for the first time really feeling grief and being like, ‘Wow, this is what grief is.’ I couldn’t quite get myself off the floor in some moments and I would have to surrender and let it take me and just go with the wave of it. I came out of a grief wave one day. And I sat down one day and this song came out from start to finish. I remember feeling like, ‘Wow. It’s like talking to the universe or some representation of God. Did you see what happened? That was crazy.’ I felt some esoteric energy coming through me. It was very strange. (laughs)
The feeling of anger can be found in the lyrically intense and glowing track “Set Your Fire on Me.” That was one of the songs I wrote from the spark of rage inside of me, so it does have an incandescent glow. I think oftentimes when I’m experiencing feeling rage, I feel it like an incandescent light orb in my chest, in my solar plexus. I was feeling strong in a way like I was standing up against the patriarchy and all these religious shackles that had been placed on women throughout history and time. And I was like, ‘No, not anymore. I’m not gonna play that role.’ There’s many metaphors within the song. I wrote it from a particular place. I didn’t really have a conscious narrative in my mind of, ‘Oh, this is what I mean.’”
Meanwhile, the lovely and gorgeous-sounding title track can be interpreted as a metaphor for an ecstatic feeling, Sparke says. “’Hysteria’ comes from this Greek word that has to do with the womb in women—the feeling of living right in the axis point of where life and death are existing and are being constantly born and changing. I think that’s what that was. Once I moved through the grief, it was an ecstatic expansion and joy, a place where all of these things were co-existing inside of me. I think sometimes as a society we’re afraid of feeling because it is very confronting. I came to this real ownership of feeling big feelings where I was like ‘Why does this have to be a negative thing? Why can’t this be a joyful and expansive thing to be? This is a real indication that I’m alive and living life and feeling things.”
Based on her natural and gifted delivery, as well as her musical influences that include Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, Sparke (whose first name was inspired by Duke Ellington’s classic composition “Mood Indigo”) seemed initially destined for a life in music. In actuality, that came much later after she first pursued an acting career. “I had always been singing since I was a child, but I never wanted to do it since my mother was doing it,” she says. “I watched her doing it in some way and it looked difficult. (laughs) Before acting school, I had been in India spiritual seeking. I went to Bali and did my yoga teacher training, which culminated in an experience where I got ill and ended up in hospital and very nearly died. I think things shifted for me in that moment where I realized things I was not feeling good in acting…and [singing] feels like my medium and language. So that’s kind of what started it. And that was many years later.”
Signed to Sacred Bones, Sparke recorded her debut Echo, which was co-produced by Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker. The working relationship between the two of them dates back to when Sparke had previously opened for the American indie band’s show in Australia. Afterwards, she and Lenker hit it off as friends and collaborators. “It was really wild because Adrianne and I were reading the same exact book,” Sparke recalls. “I remember we really saw each other and realized some things very quickly that were serendipitous and interesting: we’re exactly the same age, we had been born a week apart. We entered into a different dimension that felt quite transcendent. We just connected and that was the beginning of our journey.”
After what she went experienced during that turbulent period two years ago as documented on Hysteria, Sparke feels much stronger today. “When I was recording the songs with Aaron and I was going through that process, I was mainly so excited to be working with him. After the recording process, I remember feeling really emotional. In a way, I was letting go of these feelings, these worlds in some way. But then I just had to trust that they would change form again being in the world and they would become something new to me. I feel like it allowed me to inhabit a new version of myself. Now I feel restless to do the next album. I have more things to process in music again, different worlds I want to explore. I look back and I’m like, ‘Oh my God. Time feels like it’s moving so quickly these days.’”